Even though it had the formidable power of Marvel Studios behind it, it’s easy to forget that when Guardians of the Galaxy came out in August 2014, it was far from a sure bet. In fact, that August release is telling, as the month is typically one in which studios release movies that they only have so-so feelings about. If the movie did well, then it would be labeled a surprise; if not, then it was just an experiment while Marvel bided its time until the next Avengers movie.
What it ended up being was a phenomenon, becoming the third-highest grossing movie of 2014 and, at the time, third-highest grossing Marvel movie of all time. All of which is to say that the inevitable sequel could no longer “hide” in late summer. The franchise was now a star, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 would now be given a prime release date at the beginning of May.
That sequel finds Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) tasked again with saving the galaxy in their own unique way. In this case, it means protecting some high-powered batteries for one seriously golden race of people, only to have Rocket abscond with said batteries after the golden people's aloofness rubs him the wrong way.
The Guardians’ attempt to escape from the golden people’s pursuit leads them into the orbit of Ego (Kurt Russell), who just so happens to be Star-Lord’s father. And I mean orbit literally, as Ego is an actual planet who can manifest himself in any form he wants, including the human one that fell in love with and impregnated Peter’s mother 34 years ago.
The oddly satisfying thing about Vol. 2 is that, if you look at the big picture, not all that much happens. The film is mostly about individual relationships: Star-Lord and Ego; Gamora and her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan); Rocket and Groot; Drax and Ego’s assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff); Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his former mentor, Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone); and multiple permutations in between.
How those relationships play out and change over the course of the movie is what drives the plot, with the bigger, galaxy-spanning aspects cropping up as a reminder that if our heroes don’t come together, catastrophic things could occur. Writer/director James Gunn does a fantastic job of juggling the various story balls so that almost everyone of import is given some kind of showcase over the movie’s 136 minutes.
As with the first film, it’s the humor that sets Guardians apart from most other comic book movies. The strength of the relationships makes every funny line land that much harder. Importantly, though, the comedy never strays into farce, allowing the film to be serious when it needs to be, scoring the necessary emotional points at the right times.
The film’s one big downside is the pure amount of CGI it has to use. The story takes place almost entirely in space or on multiple different strange planets, meaning that nearly every shot must be filmed using green screen technology. The artificiality of the technique is glaring from the get-go, and the only reason it isn’t completely distracting is the strength of the story and the cast.
It is not a surprise that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is a rollicking good time, but it's too bad that it lacks that initial sense of discovery. The Avengers may be the name brand, but Star-Lord and company are nipping on their heels.